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The flaw in factory resets

A new service allows users to sell old phones and tablets but, as LIRON SEGEV reports, deleting information before selling a device does not wipe your slate clean

 

 

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Every phone and tablet has an option under Settings that allows you to Reset Phone to Factory Defaults. When activating this option the phone warns you that it will delete all your information, pics, music, e-mail, apps and everything else that you have loaded on the device. Essentially the phone is reset to the point where it came out of the factory and ready to be setup for the first time.

But is this good enough ? Is your information really deleted?

The shocking answer is: NO.

What happens when you delete ?

When we create a file, such as when we snap a new pic or create a new document, the operating system creates the file by storing it in bits and pieces in blocks on the device’s storage – be it internal phone storage or SD Card. It look similar to this:

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In order to find which blocks make up the file, the operating system creates an index which identifies the bits that make up the complete file.

When you delete a file, the operating system removes not the content inside the blocks, but removes the reference to those blocks from the Index. However all the bits in the blocks still remain on the hard drive and are marked as “free” so that new files can overwrite those bits. It’s the equivalent of removing the chapter name from the Index of the book, but still leaving the contents of the chapter inside the book – if you page through, you will find that chapter even without the index.

And this is where the problem arrises.

There are applications that allow techies to skip over the index and view the bits inside those blocks so they can recover any file whose blocks haven’t been overwritten by new files.

Does Factory Reset leaves content behind?

Yes.

This is confirmed by the team at security firm Avast, who purchased 20 phones on eBay and ran their software though them that have been reset to Factory Defaults. They discovered over 40,000 photos (yes, including those sexting pics), 750 e-mails, 250 contacts with names and addresses and various personal files.

Stefan Tanase, Senior Security Researcher, Global Research & Analysis Team, Eastern Europe, Middle East and Africa, Kaspersky Lab confirms this too:

“A staggering amount of personal data is usually left on devices after a factory reset is performed. Most often these devices end up being sold on eBay(-like) websites, and might end up in the hands of someone with bad intentions, who can recover the data. Users don’t realise that they leave behind e-mails or SMS messages, contact information or even personal pictures and videos shot with the phone camera. Essentially, all data stored on the device is recoverable to some extent”

How do you do you ensure that your data is actually deleted ?

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Simply doing a factory reset clearly is not the answer. If you want to ensure that none of your sensitive pics or information land up all over the Internet, you should Encrypt your device before doing Factory Reset

This sounds very “James-Bondy” but it s a simple step that you need to do with the tool  included with your phone. When you run the encryption tool, it protects your files from prying eyes which goes a long way to stop anyone with $50 software from getting a hold of your  family pics.

Each phone manufacturer has their own way of dealing with encryption:

Obviously before engaging in this, make sure you read and understand what is involved and back up your phone (do not lose the PIN either.)

If your device doesn’t have encryption built into the settings, then you can download several applications from the App Stores that allow you to do that.

The obvious solution would be for the mobile phone manufacturers to have encryption built into their Factory Reset process, however as Stefan Tanase  points out that the mobile phone manufacturers chose not to do this because of:

1. Lack of security awareness – both users and manufacturers generally don’t realise the importance of securely erasing data.

2. Speed – erasing a storage device securely takes more time, and the reality is that most users would rather have their device quickly perform the factory reset.

The more we trust our mobile phones with out lives, the more we should be weary of just how vulnerable these devices are. We need to be more aware of the digital fingerprints we are leaving behind.

* Image courtesy of shutterstock.com

* Follow Gadget on Twitter on @GadgetZA

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Eugene Kaspersky posts from 2050

In his imagined blog entry from the year 2050, the Kaspersky Lab founder imagines an era of digital immunity

In recent years, digital systems have moved up to a whole new level. No longer assistants making life easier for us mere mortals, they’ve become the basis of civilisation — the very framework keeping the world functioning properly in 2050.

This quantum leap forward has generated new requirements for the reliability and stability of artificial intelligence. Although some cyberthreats still haven’t become extinct since the romantic era around the turn of the century, they’re now dangerous only to outliers who for some reason reject modern standards of digital immunity.

The situation in many ways resembles the fight against human diseases. Thanks to the success of vaccines, the terrible epidemics that once devastated entire cities in the twentieth century are a thing of the past.

However, that’s where the resemblance ends. For humans, diseases like the plague or smallpox have been replaced by new, highly resistant “post-vaccination” diseases; but for the machines, things have turned out much better. This is largely because the initial designers of digital immunity made all the right preparations for it in advance. In doing so, what helped them in particular was borrowing the systemic approaches of living systems and humans.

One of the pillars of cyber-immunity today is digital intuition, the ability of AI systems to make the right decisions in conditions where the source data are clearly insufficient to make a rational choice.

But there’s no mysticism here: Digital intuition is merely the logical continuation of the idea of machine learning. When the number and complexity of related self-learning systems exceeds a certain threshold, the quality of decision-making rises to a whole new level — a level that’s completely elusive to rational understanding. An “intuitive solution” results fromthe superimposition of the experience of a huge number of machine-learning models, much like the result of the calculations of a quantum computer.

So, as you can see, it has been digital intuition, with its ability to instantly, correctly respond to unknown challenges that has helped build the digital security standards of this new era.  

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M-Net to film Deon Meyer novel

A television adaptation of Deon Meyer’s crime novel Trackers is to be co-produced by M-Net, Germany’s public broadcaster ZDF, and HBO subsidiary Cinemax, which will also distribute the drama series worldwide. 

Trackers is an unprecedented scripted television venture and MultiChoice and M-Net are proud to chart out new territory … allowing local and international talent to combine their world-class story-telling and production skills,” says MultiChoice CEO of General Entertainment, Yolisa Phahle.

HBO, Cinemax, and M-Net also launched a Producers Apprenticeship programme last year when the Cinemax series Warrior, coming to M-Net in July, was filmed in South Africa. Some other Cinemax originals screened on M-Net include Banshee, The Knick and Strike Back. 

“Cinemax is delighted to partner with M-Net and ZDF in bringing Deon Meyer’s unforgettable characters and storytelling—all so richly rooted in the people and spectacular geography of South Africa—to screens around the world,” says Len Amato, President, HBO Films, Miniseries, and Cinemax.    

Filming for Trackers has already started in  locations across South Africa and the co-production partners have been working together on all aspects of production 

Deon Meyer, whose award-winning crime novels have been translated into more than 20 languages, with millions of copies sold worldwide, serves as a supervising screenwriter and co-producer; British writer Robert Thorogood (Death in Paradise) is the showrunner. The team of South African writers on the project includes the Mitchell’s Plain playwright, screenwriter and director Amy Jephta (Die Ellen Pakkies Story) and local writer/directors Kelsey Egen and Jozua Malherbe. 

The cast for the six-part miniseries includes Ed Stoppard, Rolanda Marais, James Alexander and Thapelo Mokoena. 

Trackers will make its debut on M-Net 101 in October 2019 and will also be available on MultiChoice’s on-demand service, Showmax. The six-part drama series is produced by UK production company Three River Studios as well as South Africa’s Scene 23. 

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